Al-Ghazali – Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence

David B. Burrell


It is fair to say that the “Book of Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence ” plays an axial role in Ghazali’s celebrated compendium, the Ihya Ulum al-din. What is at issue is not Divine Unity itself, but the implications for the community arising from the idea that everything comes from God and that “there is no agent but God.”

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How can we trust in Divine Providence? Ghazali states that “all that exists in creation–sustenance given or withheld, life or death, riches or poverty, and everything else that can be named” is solely initiated and originated by God Most High.

“If the gates of mystical insight were opened to you, this would be clear to you with a clarity more perfect than ordinary vision.” But those gates are not opened to most of us, so the test of our understanding of divine unity will not come by direct insight into the ways of God, but through a life of trust in which concerted practice will bring each of us personally to the threshold of the only understanding possible to us.

What sort of a practice is trust in divine providence? It entails aligning oneself with things as they really are: in Ghazali’s terms, with the truth that there is no agent but God Most High– a reminder that everything in the universe is created by that same God and so reflects something of God’s majesty and beauty.

Yet the very thing that escapes our understanding is the secret connection of each creature with its creator. This requires effort, which cannot be solely intellectual, for our relationship to the One Creator resists formulation. If we truly believe that each created thing reflects God’s majesty and beauty, then each event in our lives also reveals God’s way of guiding us.

By trying our best to act according to the conviction that the divine decree expresses the truth in events as they unfold, we can allow ourselves to be “shown” how things truly lie. Faith tawhid and practice tawakkul reinforce one another.

The understanding we can have is that of one journeying in faith, a “salik,” the name which Sufis appropriated for themselves.Ghazali selects stories of Sufi sheiks, offering them as examples to help point us towards developing specific skills of trusting: habits of responding to different situations in such a way that we learn by acting how things are truly ordered, the truth of the divine decree.

Ghazali’s judicious use of stories is intended to imitate the Sufi practice of master/disciple, where the novice is helped to discern how to act.

So the challenge of understanding the relation of the free creator to the universe becomes the task of rightly responding to events as they happen, in such a way that the true ordering of things, the divine decree, can be made manifest in our actions-as-responses. When put into practice in this way, the “knowledge,” which faith in divine unity brings can lead us to an habitual capacity [or “state”] to align our otherwise errant responses to situation after situation according to that faith.

One of the greatest Sufi thinkers of all time, Al-Ghazali (died 1111 C.E.) shares his startling and original exploration of the meaning of trust in Divine Providence and recommends specific spiritual skills to help the seeker develop a state whereby he may rightly respond to events as they happen.


The opening lines of the book possess a harmony and a force of their own: "Praise be to God, ruler of visible and invisible worlds ... He is the master of hearts and breasts who diverts eyes from attending to means and causes to the cause of causes, raising their resolve from their inclination towards material things and ordinary concerns to the One who orders them all". The book is divided into two parts; the first half discusses the: (i) The benefits of the trust in God (ii) Divine Unity [tawhid] as the foundation of trust in God and (iii) Diverse dimensions of agency. Ghazali as per his style begins by quoting Qur’anic verses on the benefits of trust in God including “Let the believers put their trust simply in God” [14:12] A few hadith are then discussed relating to the same subject. He then discusses Divine Unity [tawhid] in the next section. This is explained through four stages. Firstly, speaking the words of the Divine Unity “There is no god but God” while the heart is heedless. The second stage is that of those who believe the meaning of this statement in their heart – this is the condition of the general community of Muslims. The third stage is described as “those who bear witness to [faith in divine unity] on the path of interior illumination by means of the light of truth” and finally the fourth stage being “those who see only unity when they regard existence, which is the witness of righteous ones and those whom the Sufis call ‘annihilated’ by faith in Divine Unity” The discussion regarding the nature of faith in Divine Unity mentions how everything that we see and experience throughout life ultimately comes to us from God. Life or death, wealth or poverty, and everything else that we care to mention “the sole one who initiated and originated it all is God Most High” The second part of the book talks about the states of trust in Divine Providence and mentions the accompanying practices. This part of the book is then divided into the following sections (i) What the [Sufi] sheikhs say by way of defining such trust (ii) Trust in divine providence with regard to obtaining provisions. Imam al-Ghazali explains trust in Divine Providence [tawakkul] through the example of a trustee [wakil]. One is confident in the trustee on the basis that he possesses four qualities namely: “that he be nothing but rightly guided, exquisitely able and powerful, flawlessly eloquent and utterly compassionate.” Then a parable is used of a person who is wrongly accused and a detailed discussion takes place of how the accused would place all his confidence in the trustee or authorised representative [wakil] and how we should use the parable to aspire to trust in God Most High. The next section then goes on to discuss two further stages of trust in Divine Providence, the above being the first stage. Put succinctly they can be mentioned here as “the state of one who comports himself with God Most High as a child with his mother” i.e. he knows no one other than her. And the third stage (which is the highest) being in the presence of God Most High, “whether active or at rest” . This stage differs from the second in that whereas in the second stage the child runs to the mother for all his needs and screams when a need requires to be fulfilled; the third stage consists of “a child who knows that his mother is looking for him whether he screams for her or not” [9]. This last stage “results in one leaving petitionary prayer and asking behind him, confident in His magnanimity and solicitude” Although some aspects of the book require a certain degree of focus and re-reading until one become comfortable with the point being made, the book is a rewarding experience. Consistent with the rest of the Ihya, this book imparts invaluable lessons and examples for us to emulate and cherish. On the whole, a valuable contribution in making the treasure of the Ihya available in the English language.
Reviewed by: Naeem Azam Source: